Sunday, March 31, 2013

Album Review: The Strokes - Comedown Machine

Album Rating: B-
In 2009, I had no interest in indie rock. I was a wanna-be radical high school sophomore straight out of Episcopal middle school, passing my relatively dull evenings (shouldn’t I have been doing homework?) listening to Propagandhi, Bad Religion, and Rise Against and thinking about how bad President Bush had been. Oh, girls too. I thought a lot about girls. It was girls that showed me the Shins, the Fratellis, the Decemberists, and any number of other girl-wooing indie acts that just ended up making me feel bad about not being able to woo girls. And then there was the Strokes. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I spent a particularly long April of my life with nothing but Is This It on my iPod. I learned every crevice of every song. For the first time in my life, I felt like an album was made just for me.

Every one of the band’s singles was significant to me in one way or another, whether I drove them into my skull lying on my bed staring at a wall or playing them through the radio during uncomfortably silent car rides. I had opinions like a lot of Strokes fans - Is This It was perfect, Room on Fire was great, First Impressions was messy. When Angles came out in 2011, their music was still on regular rotation. I latched on to popular opinion and said the record was just okay. It is. It’s a really okay record. Still, that spring, I listened to nothing else. When the summer finally came, I just kind of stopped. I started checking out all those bands critics talked about in their Is This It reviews, and the Strokes slowly drifted from my mind with all the baggage of my middle-teens.

I think I’m going to remember 2013 as a year for closing the book. First there was m b v,  a record that simultaneously brought the gods to earth and made sure they would never ascend again, and now, we have Comedown Machine. As far as I can imagine, this will be the last Strokes album. Claims of wanting to “get back together and make music” aside, this had to happen. Literally. Legally, the Strokes were bound in a 5-record contract with their label, RCA (cleverly referenced in the album art), and this album had to happen. All the guys minus one have their own things going on - Julian Casablancas, Nikolai Fraiture, and Albert Hammond Jr. with their solo projects, and Fabrizio Moretti with Little Joy - and don’t ostensibly need the Strokes. That being said, after hearing Comedown Machine, I can’t imagine things any other way.

“Tap Out” begins with a squealing, pissy guitar line, a precise inversion of the smooth wind-down that kicked off Is This It, and, really, their career. It’s pretty clear they’re still doing their 80’s thing. The song’s verse would fit comfortably in an inspirational montage from a new Rocky sequel. The album’s biggest failures come whenever the guys become to fixated with the neon-lights and legwarmers sound. There’s hardly a synthesizer on the whole damn record that shouldn’t have been done away with. The worst offenders are the neuron-suffocating “80’s Comedown Machine” and the single “One Way Trigger,” which is at least worth a few laughs. Deep below every ugly synth sweep, though, these songs are genuine Strokes songs. None of Angles’ misguided electro-landscapes (“Games”), nor too-serious-to-be-taken-seriously soundsplats (“Metabolism”). The melodies are the protagonists here, and they’re mostly really great.

This time around, the band are having fun again, just like they were made to do. Part of Casablancas’ charm has always been hidden between lines of poorly written poetry. There’s no genius to be found, nor accidental wisdom, just a sort of silly obliviousness executed with enough cool swagger to make it adorable. I don’t mean like a teddybear either. People truly adore the guy. There’s something painfully uncomfortable about hearing him spew about his feelings and the meaning of the universe - like listening to a priest discuss his sex life. Anyway, there’s none of that here. “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” he asks on the Bowie-esque “Welcome to Japan,” one of the album’s major standouts, only after railing off “Putting posters up for your band/now I tear them down with my hand.” What are we, Julian, 5? I love it. Also, good observation about the Lotus.

The best tracks on the album recall the attitude of the band’s middle period. Nowhere is the thunder of Is This It captured or replicated, but who was asking for that? When the Strokes made that record, they were young. I won’t say they’re old now, but they’re older, and the generation whose zeitgeist they perfectly captured is aging with them. Their years show most when they do try to go down the road they paved in their early 20’s, as on the mid-album attempt at a “New York City Cops” reboot, “50/50.” On paper, it should be a perfect specimen of 2001 – fuzzy vocals, sharp, spotless rhythms, and a two guitar dichotomy, pointed riff versus incessant 4/4 strumming. What’s missing is something totally intangible; something that meshed their earliest work together and stuck it to our heads.

Luckily, the sheer number of good songs here rules out sinkage by a single poor cut, and the number of really great songs is just plain astounding. It’s about three, by the way. I’ve already mentioned the delightful “Welcome to Japan.” On “Partners in Crime,” they prove they can still do high energy with class. There’s no getting around it, the rhythm section is basically playing “Last Nite” during the chorus. Meanwhile, though, the lead guitar’s got some funky theremin-impersonation thing going on that’s as interesting as it is smile-inducing. That’s good pop, right? “Happy Ending” (well-titled) revives a grand tradition of excellent album closers (I’m leaving out the unobstrusive, dance-hall-y croon “Call it Fate, Call it Karma”, which has its place, but isn’t the proper end) that’s been neglected since First Impressions’ seemingly never-ending “Red Light” and the okay-but-slow “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” from Angles. No, “Happy Ending” isn’t “Take it or Leave it,” but hell, it’s good.  

So, this is it. The Strokes have wrapped up a five-album, 12-year legacy with poise. Comedown Machine is their best in years, no doubt about it. Its successes prove that the guy’s past triumphs weren’t just lucky breaks. Listening through the record again and again took me back to when I was younger and all I wanted to be was Julian Casablancas standing on that red cube in the center of a massive crowd on MTV. I hope this sells well. I really hope it gets around and somehow gets in to the hands of some kid who listens to anarcho-punk and who’s never heard of indie rock, much less the Strokes. I hope it gets played into the ground. For me, it's not hard to imagine, and that means the band have done their job. 


1. Tapout
2. All the Time
3. One Way Trigger
4. Welcome to Japan
5. 80's Comedown Machine
6. 50/50
7. Slow Animals
8. Partners in Crime
9. Chances
10. Happy Ending
11. Call It Fate, Call It Karma

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